At Gallery West hangs an oil-and-pencil scrapbook of Anne Salley's past--pictures of the ruined Old Town Alexandria mansion in which she and dozens of artists and musicians flowered and fought, danced and debated, enjoyed and experimented in the 1960s.
The North Fairfax Street house--actually three "wedded" houses dating back, in part, to the mid-18th century--provided a "very romantic atmosphere" in which to live and work, Salley said, for her first 12 years after college. The artist, who received her degrees in fine arts at Duke and the University of North Carolina, came north to teach at Arlington's Wakefield High School in the '60s.
Then, after her landlady died in 1972, the house was sold and divided and Salley moved out. The present owners are trying to restore it to its original beauty, according to a real estate agent involved in the transaction.
Salley said she was attracted by the old beauty of the mansion's "great, wide, shuttered windows," and eventually lived in three of its 18 apartments. One of her paintings, "First Window," portrays the magnetism the place had for Salley: a tangled Virginia creeper spills over the old sill, giving the painting an air of fragrant decay.
"We were living with layers and layers of history in that house," she said. The tenants, who included artists, graduate students and "Army band people who we took and made into esthetes," said Salley, gave dances and musicales in the mansion's ballroom, where George Washington supposedly once danced.
Day-Glo paint covered the tall walls and high ceilings; stereo music blared through the arched hallways and elegant stairways, and the scrollwork-covered Adam loggia--an open arcade on the side of the house--was painted flamingo pink.
"There was a Peter-Pan feeling to living there," Salley said, "a perpetual graduate-student atmosphere." She said she eventually became the "oldest living resident" in the transient group and witnessed two births, a wedding and a death among the household members.
Salley says friendships forged in the house have endured through the years, and many of the "wedded-house people" have emerged into successful artistic careers. "One is singing opera in Paris right now; another teaches and composes at a college in Connecticut," she said. Salley herself is teaching drawing, fine arts and the history of women in art at Alexandria's Northern Virginia Commmunity College campus.
She is also emerging from what she calls the "abstracts of the '50s" to a brand of realism reflected in the paintings now on exhibit, which she painted from slides, pictures and memories after she moved out of the house. Although by no means photographic in effect, the pieces are distinctly representational, as a sunset represents a day gone by.
These works, however, fail to convey the vitality one senses from talking with Salley about the house. The viewer moves through the rooms of the house with each painting, which reflect a heavy, deliberate stillness. The detail work shows up in the shadows of things rather than the things themselves; many of the paintings are more concerned with the glow of light than the shapes the light touches. The rooms feel stagnant and empty--like a dream, like a memory.
It was an effort to articulate and preserve that memory that moved Salley to paint the house, she said. "I started with this picture of the kitchen," she said, pointing to a composition of chair, table and wastebasket, "and then I just got obsessed with making pictures. I guess they're a kind of scrapbook."
Anne Salley's paintings and drawings can be seen at Gallery West, 1314 King St., Alexandria, until Friday. For more information, call 549-7359.